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The Truth About ‘Bulking’ And ‘Toning’

Ask the average gym-goer about their workouts and they’ll respond with something like, “I want to lift weights but don’t want to put on too much bulk.” Another popular response: “I’m only lifting light weights because I want to get toned.”

Terms like “bulking” and “toning” are often used in conversation about fitness, but I’d argue that they contribute to a lot of misconceptions about different ways of working out and how they impact the body. 

For the sake of your workouts, diet, and supplement routine, let’s clear up what “bulking” and “toning” really call for.

Defining “Bulking” And “Toning”

When people talk about bulking up, they are typically referring to building as much muscle mass as possible. Sometimes this comes at the cost of putting on some body fat, too.

When people talk about toning, though, they’re referring to making their body more defined. Often, this involves building or maintaining muscle mass while lowering body fat.

Training To “Bulk” Or “Tone”

Despite the old adage “heavy weights for bulking, light weights for toning,” lifting heavy or light weights both result in similar levels of muscle growth, as long as you train decently hard. That’s right: Regardless of whether you want to bulk up or look more toned, how you lift doesn’t need to differ much.

You see, when people worry about “getting too bulky,” they make one very incorrect assumption: that it’s easy to build muscle.

Read More: 6 Possible Reasons Why You’re Not Building Muscle

If it was easy to build muscle, we’d have a lot more people walking around looking like bodybuilders. But building muscle does not happen by accident; you don’t lift weights one time and then wake up absolutely jacked the next morning.

In fact, if you want to build serious muscle, you’ll probably have to train hard for the foreseeable future. If your goal is to put on a little muscle while shedding body fat, you’ll probably just decrease your training intensity sooner than someone trying to put on tons of muscle.

Eating To “Bulk” Or “Tone”

While lifting style may not have much influence on whether you achieve a bulkier or more toned look, your diet certainly does.

If you want to build any muscle, it’s crucial that you consume enough calories. Where you get those calories from, though, can impact your body composition.

Research (like this American Journal of Clinical Nutrition study) shows that people who consume a huge excess of calories generally gain muscle and fat. Typically, this leads to a “bulkier” appearance. Surprising? Not so much.

Read More: Exactly What To Eat To Build Muscle

However, other studies (like this Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition study) show that people can consume extra calories from protein and actually lose fat while gaining muscle.

Given that, if “toning” is your goal, focusing your diet more on protein can help you get there more efficiently.

Supplementing To “Bulk” Or “Tone”

One easy way to increase your protein intake: Add a protein powder to your routine. Though some people worry that protein supplements cause weight gain, most of them only add an 100 to 200 calories to your day.

Unless the rest of your diet is centered on gaining weight, adding a protein shake alone won’t make the number on your scale budge much.

There are other supplements—namely creatine—that can contribute to weight gain. This weight is not from fat, though. Creatine supplementation increases water and glycogen (stored carbohydrate) in muscle cells. As a result, you can gain two to three pounds during the first month of supplementing. Since creatine can help boost your workout performance and support greater long-term gains, that weight gain may be worthwhile.

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Still, no supplement can turn you into Arnold Schwarzenegger overnight.

The Bottom Line

Ultimately, don’t let confusing terms like “bulking” and “toning” distract you too much in the gym. Focus on giving your lifts your best effort and use your diet to support your fat-loss or get-big goals.

References & Further Reading

  1. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition: A high protein diet (3.4 g/kg/d) combined with a heavy resistance training program improves body composition in healthy trained men and women–a follow-up investigation.
  2. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition: International society of sports nutrition position stand: protein and exercise.
  3. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition: Massive overfeeding and energy balance in men: the Guru Walla model.
  4. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition: International Society of Sports Nutrition position stand: safety and efficacy of creatine supplementation in exercise, sport, and medicine.
  5. European Journal of Sport Science: Muscular adaptations in low-versus high-load resistance training: A meta-analysis.
  6. Frontiers in Nutrition: Is an Energy Surplus Required to Maximize Skeletal Muscle Hypertrophy Associated With Resistance Training?

Known as ‘The Muscle Ph.D.,’ Dr. Jacob Wilson has a knack for transforming challenging, complex concepts into understandable lessons that can support your body composition and health goals. A skeletal muscle physiologist and sports nutrition expert, Wilson is a leader in muscle sports nutrition. As the CEO of The Applied Science & Performance Institute and researches supplementation, nutrition, and their impact on muscle size, strength, and power.